Letters to the Editor

On Nuclear Power: An Answer to Chris Kinder

By Dave Walters

Chris Kinder’s response to the article I wrote that originally appeared in Permanent Revolution and was reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint, along with his critique of Stuart King’s introduction, is, we are afraid, simply a repetitive jumble of anti-nuclear hyperbole. I will attempt to deal with each of the main points made by Chris in this response.

Chris’s first charge is that we are promoting a “specific and very dangerous capitalist-developed industry—nuclear energy.” I would like to ask Chris to name a single industry or technology that was not developed under the capitalist mode of production. Wind? Solar? By all means, please explain this new concept to us and to the readers of Socialist Viewpoint. In point of fact nuclear energy was developed by the combined experience of humanity’s greatest scientists who first developed the theoretical basis of fission energy in the early 20th Century and applied, for civilian use, first, in the U.S.SR, then the United States. It is how capitalism deploys nuclear energy that is, in large part, being debated.

It is Chris, not us, who seems to be trivializing the Transitional Program, to jump to his final paragraph: in the socialist transition we take over “capitalist” industries as is. The key question is; can we put forward an emergency action program on climate change and power sources that addresses the climate emergency AND develops the world economy in terms of the need for more electricity power, etc. Only that can win over the working class/rural masses to such a program, not the idea that we will shrink the economy and go backwards. And that transitional program is BOTH for a workers government to carry out and a program of action to force on the capitalists now by as much action as we can mobilize—particularly the re-nationalizations and workers control elements of it.

On Fukushima...this was a totally preventable accident. We noted above all that the causes of the accident need to be addressed. As students of science we need to look at what the causes were and address it. Anything else is irresponsible. If the causes can be addressed, and eliminated, as we suggested, we do just that. We demand it, we seek democratic input into how this is done, and we do it. The actual releases of radiation, to the air and oceans have been slowed to almost a trickle. That’s a good thing and a testimony to the workers—mechanics and engineers—of TEPCO’s unionized work force. However, the workers movement in Japan being sucked into Green economics as they are doing by demanding all nuclear plants be closed now, is a backward and ultimately reactionary position to take. The demands should be full fledged investigations completely throughout all nuclear companies in Japan, plans implemented to make them safe, (retrofitted and re-engineered), eventually phased out and replaced with modern many-times-safer nuclear power plants under a system of true transparent democratic control.

In the article neither Stuart nor I address the actual technology failures, explosions and so on because that was not our point. It was not a rehash at how bad the accident was, it was how to address this in the future and that it should and could be addressed.

Chris challenges us on the issue of spent nuclear fuel [SNF]. Yet I addressed this in part but Chris may of missed it. We can explain more here:

SNF is very dangerous but only if it is brought out into the environment. As the most highly regulated substance from an industry in the world, it is accounted for, and stored safely on site. There are only 70,000 tons of it in the United States today. That’s after 50 years of commercial nuclear deployment for every reactor in the country. All of it would fit in the Costco box store. The entire French SNF load sits in ONE ROOM. None of it has “escaped” or posed a danger. But Chris ignores the real issue with “waste:” the one million tons produced every year, highly toxic, air borne and containing heavy metals produced at ONE coal plant. The 70,000 tons versus hundreds-of-millions of tons of coal and fly ash that is not regulated and which kills 21,000 (according the National Institute of Health) and ten-times that number in respiratory ailments. But Chris is suggesting the 70,000 tons rates the fear and loathing that has killed not one soul in the U.S., EVER. What are his priorities here? Where is the real danger?

Secondly, on SNF, we do have solutions contrary to his faith-based belief that there “is no solution.” We can reprocess/recycle the SNF as the French do but which was made illegal here by the Imperialist Presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1977. We can safely store it for thousands of years in deep geological formations as the Finns proposed and have been preparing to do. We can deploy and we should demand, as suggested in the original article, that we move toward the 4th Generation reactors that not only produce 1/100th the amount of SNF but can use the SNF from the current fleet as fuel and eliminate it altogether.

Chris’ missive about my support for nuclear as a material base for socialism as some sort of “Atoms-for-Peace propaganda book” is totally misplaced. How is it even comparable? Atoms-for-Peace was designed to shore up capitalism and provide a steady supply of bomb-making plutonium. Chris, who doesn’t put forward his own understanding of how a workers government could lay down the foundations for a vast increase in the productive forces and leaves this a big “blank,” doesn’t understand that it is the taking over of existing productive forces, developing them under a national and worldwide planning under workers self-management. This will mean more, not less, energy. As Lenin noted in a famous statement: “Communism is electrification and soviet power.” How does Chris believe we can head toward a communist society, not to mention the minimum needs to development in the neo-colonial world without a massive increase in the forces of production and the energy to run them?

We will need more, not less, on-demand energy to get off of fossil fuels. We will need more, not less energy, to provide energy for the two billion humans who don’t have it now. Only nuclear can seriously provide this form of energy. If we don’t have nuclear energy, we are condemning the world not only to continued poverty, war and barbarism; we are condemning humanity to extinction. We simply have no choice.

On the NRC

I’m actually for a rational form 0f regulation that makes nuclear energy safer but doesn’t hold back...for the mere point of holding it back—nuclear energy deployment. In this sense a total overhaul of NRC regulations needs to take place. There are two aspects of the regulations that were built upon, and added incrementally from when the Atomic Energy Act was signed into law by Eisenhower. One aspect deals with the operation and regulation of nuclear power plants; the other concerns the licensing for construction and operation of new power plants. I don’t believe the quantity of regulations but the quality of regulations is what is important. I’m not well read on this but I know that in many ways the sheer volume of regulations has made running plants less safe than they could be and leads to a form of complacency which is potentially deadly.

I think the NRC, even with (and some case, because) of the exposés and whistleblower allegations, has generally done a good job that has protected the public from the worst that could happen. The NRC is not as incestuous as the Japanese regulatory agencies (they have two main ones) are with the nuclear industry there. The NRC is not the FDA or the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement that regulates the offshore oil industry. I say this because if it were, we’d be in a lot more trouble than we are. We can have a separate discussion on this; we need it. I have zero “faith” in the NRC but the record is very public. It’s not perfect, ought to be better but is not “bad” in the sense that other agencies that have failed the public are.

But I actually agree with Chris that the NRC has to look out side the box (a lã earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and tornados). So I’m for demanding they do so and support any actions that would have them do this.

Anti-nuclear activists Sherman and Mangano’s pieces were, as Chris noted, parsed and analyzed. Only the most anti-nuclear ideologues (such as Pierre Sprey and Counterpunch magazine) defend their findings as significant. In fact Sprey says their initial findings are flawed based on their study but he claims to have found that there was a very slight increase in infant deaths after Fukushima: depending on how one parses the stats and which cities are included. There is an interesting parsing from students at UCB on Sprey’s findings here:

Sprey’s original link, which is hard to find and you have to scroll two-thirds of the way down the article is here:

In neither case is a cause shown why these deaths occurred. None of the autopsies show a causal relationship to what is arguably very small increases in background radiation, less even than the difference between high and low radiation areas of different parts of the planet. Less than normal dosimeters can pick up. The small statistical difference in each of these separate sad incidents really shows nothing from an epidemiological point of view. Not even a theory can account for this. And I would pose this, to show the dangers of applying statistical analysis (which is not science) to very low outcomes: if it shows, as the original counter-argument showed, that deaths declined, would Chris then being willing to attribute this to the slight increase in radiation? I wouldn’t even though people make this argument. I think that what Sherman and Mangano do is grasp at straws to increase people’s fear of radiation.

Chris writes:

“Walters’ article completely overlooks the long-term effects of nuclear power. It has been proven by scientists both that nuclear power plants in their normal operation emit dangerous radiation, which effects people long-term, and that radiation plumes from accidents effect people worldwide for decades. In contradiction to the ignorant statement by journalist George Monbiot on Democracy Now!, that only 45 people died as a result of Chernobyl, it has been shown that up to a million have died worldwide.”

Chris...what are you reading? Nothing is proven. I can easily say that “scientists” have proven just the opposite. It’s easy to make broadside hyperbolic statements but you should at least qualify this! I would challenge you to show where and when under “...normal operations that nuclear power plants emit dangerous radiation which effects people long-term.” There is no evidence for this at all that I’ve ever seen or that some of the cancers that do occur around nuclear power plants are the result of those emissions or as significant as say, around solar cell manufacturers?

On Chernobyl...remember a plant that when it was first built had the U.S. ban any plant like this from ever being built because of it’s poor design...killed we don’t know how many. You are using the very poorly sourced Russian/Slavic report that was republished, with Greenpeace money and urging, by the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). It was not “shown that a million people died.” This one compilation claims one million people died, which includes as part of this the older Ukrainian government’s claim that all cancer following the Chernobyl accident was the result of the accident as if all non-Chernobyl cancers and deaths didn’t exist. My own view is that I don’t know how many died. I distrust the “45” number because it emanated from the old Stalinist government under Gorbachev. But I don’t trust a study, either, from a group that would refuse under any circumstances to admit a thing that is positive about fission energy. It is a more a religious position than one that engenders discussion and give and take. This report fits right into that. By the way, the NYAS would not take responsibility for the contents of the report when they were challenged about it. One should question all sources, not just ones that don’t fit one’s prejudices.

Chris writes:

“Assuming, as I do, that Trotskyists should be against extending the life of old, outmoded and dangerous reactors, then we are already well into the territory of transforming the energy industry, U.S. and worldwide. What is to replace these decommissioned plants? Do we go forward, toward a clean, renewable energy future, or do we try to prop up a dangerous technology which was developed under capitalism more to promote nuclear weapons than to provide electric power?”

While Chris continues to use the rhetorical “dangerous technology” haiku he fails to point out the real problem while touching on an important question at the same time. The planet faces extinction if we don’t get greenhouse gasses under control by 2030/2050 (pick a date). Chris makes the assumption that renewables, and by this he means solar and wind, can actually decarbonize a modern industrial society. This is false from start to finish. It can’t be done. This vision is one of the Green “de-growthers” who believe “we use too much.” Despite the science-fiction economics of “Shifting the world to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2030,”1 by Mark Jacobson, it cannot be done without continued reliance, and over the contradiction of using more fossil fuels. This Green (capitalist) view is refuted here:

And here:

I urge anyone wanting a serious discussion to read these reports AND the commentary/debate that follows them, especially in the latter report.

Chris’ perspective would lead to impoverishment and chaos, under any mode of production.

Chris challenges Stuart King in his introduction to my article by writings:

“`The figures don’t add up,’ according to Stuart King. ‘Building offshore windfarms, renewing the grid to use them, developing wave power etc., will take years if not a decade or more...’ Hello? What ‘figures’ is King talking about? It could take many decades to replace the outmoded nuclear plants with new ones worldwide. (Capitalist India, one of the leaders in thorium research, only projects 30 percent of its electricity from thorium reactors by 2050.) But why go that route? Why not use this time, under a revolutionary government, to remake the energy superstructure: wind, solar, wave, geothermal and new grid?”

Well let’s examine both parts of this again. Chris uses Capitalist India as an example of the inability of nuclear to ramp up. The operative word here is “capitalist.” A revolutionary government, as Chris suggests, could be employed to ramp up renewables; such a government could plan for far more nuclear than the 30 percent goal. Even with massive renewables to supplement this, the goal is to decarbonize electrical production (because it’s the easiest to decarbonize). A revolutionary workers and peasants government in India would have a stated goal of decarbonizing its industry. (It doesn’t now.) It would use all resources to do this, including and especially thorium powered reactors. It would likely also include a “wedge” of wind (with solar pretty much a useless source of energy, wind has the advantage of being far cheaper than solar and in theory can work in tandem with on-demand sources of energy like nuclear and hydro).

Any revolutionary government would employ the ability to deploy the most abundant, cheapest, and densest form of energy not diffuse and intermittent forms of energy. An energy source that can be scaled upward to produce prodigious forms of energy, for human needs and not profits under the most stringent safety conditions. THIS, Chris, is thinking big. No grid in the world can handle large amounts of intermittent power at least now without massive amounts of expensive (and non-existent) days and weeks long matter how big one thinks and how many resources we can mobilize.

Chris, when you correctly state that capitalist industries are warped and deformed by the profit motives, both Stuart and I couldn’t agree more. But this doesn’t mean the underlying technology, engineering and science are wrong, it’s how they are applied and under what motives. Our goal, yours and ours, is to replace that almost obsessive-compulsive disorder to create surplus value by the capitalist mode of production with one that understands that at the end of the day, its use-value for the purposes of developing...and saving humanity, that we strive for. It cannot be done with defuse and weak forms of energy. It must move forward with expanding and abundant forms of denser energy. That’s our goal.

—August 19, 2011